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Dancing without mirrors: Ohad Naharin in conversation with Raka Maitra

Singapore dancemaker Raka Maitra interviews acclaimed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.


Published: 11 Oct 2016

Time taken : ~10mins

Raka Maitra is a Singapore choreographer who leads her company CHOWK Productions in contemporary dance practice rooted in classical Indian odissi. Ohad Naharin is a world-renowned Israeli choreographer known for Gaga, his movement philosophy. Both have works presented in da:ns festival in 2016.

Two weeks before the festival, we invited Maitra to pick Naharin’s brain through a long-distance telephone call. The result? A candid and insightful conversation that touches on various topics including Gaga, why connection plays a big part in dance, the importance of being groovy, and why both of them are not fans of mirrors.

Form and style

Raka Maitra (RM): Hello Ohad. I’m not used to interviewing people, but I’ve got a few questions I’d like to ask you. Firstly, how important is style to your choreographic practice? What is the connection between form and style?

Ohad Naharin (ON): Hi Raka. You know, some people can connect form and style. But for me, it is like…banana and hairspray—they don’t connect.

RM: (laughs) Yes.

ON: Actually, one of my thoughts in my work is to appear as though I have no style. I don’t like to belong to a style, to be associated to a style.

But form is really, really important. The whole idea of the sublimation of my emotion—my fears, anger, passion, love—used together with the clarity of form, is a huge part of the act of choreography. All of the above should appear free of style. 

What is Gaga?

RM: What would you call Gaga then? From what you describe, it’s a form, right?

ON: Gaga is a research of movement. It’s like a laboratory of research. Gaga is the way of working that gives the dancers a toolbox.

RM: I find Gaga beautiful. I love the way your dancers move, the choreography. But I couldn’t place a finger on it. What would you say is the distinctive feature of someone doing Gaga?

ON: Gaga teaches you to get rid of your habits. And style is very much connected to habits.

RM: Correct, yeah.

ON: So once you get rid of habits, or at least are aware of your habits, you become a lot freer and a lot more open to new habits, new suggestions. With Gaga, you never ask what to feel, but you ask what to sense. Gaga teaches you how to listen to your body before you tell it what to do. It teaches you how to connect.

You connect to the connection of effort and pleasure, the connection of effort and distribution of effort, using different parts of our body. You connect to the flow of energy and the use of gravity. You connect to all aspects of movement, to the scope of sensation, which is very, very huge and important.

You also connect to your limitations and weaknesses, and go beyond familiar limits on a daily basis. You connect with the ability to laugh at yourself. You connect with all the things that strengthen you.

All these can be channeled with the toolbox that Gaga gives whomever is using it, dancer or not dancer.

Gaga teaches you how to listen to your body before you tell it what to do. It teaches you how to connect.

– Ohad Naharin

Dance training and teaching

RM: Lovely. Do you think it’s a disadvantage when a dancer trains in just one form of dance when they’re very young, when you are rooted in that one thing?

ON: I think that’s a disadvantage in any area and any field, doesn’t matter if it’s dance, music or, you know, science. We need to be open and aware, and practise more than just one form.

But it’s a very tricky question, because it’s also how the form is being taught. It’s about the teacher, the way he does it has huge importance. The teacher is channeling the knowledge to the student, but the way he does it, it has a huge importance. You have so many ways of teaching one form.

Finding inspiration

RM: I’m very inspired by text, by literature, by stories. What inspires you and your choreography?

ON: The human body inspires me, the expression of the human body. I just need the intimacy with my dancers. I’m always inspired to research movement.

I can also be very much inspired by the artistic expression of other artists that I like, be it in movies, music, literature or visual arts. I can also be inspired by nature, and I feel that I connect to what I call “human conscience”, something that has to do with, you know, humanity. Human qualities trigger why and how I choreograph.

Auditioning for “groovy-ness”

RM: When you audition dancers, what do you look out for?

ON: We have, in Batsheva Dance Company, two companies. We have the junior and the main companies. All the dancers from the main company come from the junior company, so we don’t do auditions for the main company.

I have two or three years to know, really closely, the dancers in the junior company, and this is sort of an audition. Their time in the junior company is how I’m going to decide who goes into the main company.

For the junior company, we hold auditions every year. So, almost every year, half of the junior company changes. It’s a little bit like auditioning students for a school, because although it’s full-time and you do lots of shows in the junior company, you are still in a state of learning.

If I find someone is very talented, but I feel that the treasures that he has are still maybe locked inside him, in two years in dance I can maybe open up those treasures. I’m more interested in the treasures than the ability to do something.

I look for people with potential, that are very coordinated, groovy, intelligent. People who have the ability to laugh at themselves, to connect to silliness.

RM: “Groovy”. What is “groovy-ness” for you?

ON: Dancers, they have to have the groove, something to connect with the outside world. This inner rhythm has to do with the rhythm of the universe. It’s the, you know, the sync between the rhythm and what’s going on.

A groovy dancer has what I call sensitive skin. He can feel the air that touches him, and he can feel the flow of energy and something that can become very percussive.

A day in the life of Ohad Naharin

RM: What is a typical work day like for you?

ON: I like to wake up early, like five or six. I like to have time for myself before my daughter and my wife wake up.

Then, before I start dance work, I have to go into meetings, the things that have to do more with office stuff that I have as a director. I try to get rid of it before I actually start. At 10, we have a Gaga class and I usually teach it. One of my most important moments of the day is the Gaga class. It’s one hour and fifteen minutes where I teach the dancers, and this is where I develop Gaga. Gaga is still developing all the time.

And then we rehearse for somewhere between four to six hours, with a break in between. If there’s a show, it’s completely different. If there’s a premiere, this can be 14, 16 hours.

We don’t work with the mirror in Indian dance ... we are supposed to feel what we do, not see what we do.

– Raka Maitra

Tradition and mirrors

RM: What for you is tradition in dance? Is there a tradition you belong to?

ON: Tradition is about remembering where we come from, the ability to learn from other people’s experience. It doesn’t mean that you need to be specialised or obey the codes of traditional dance styles or philosophies.

Tradition is something that tests you about the past. Some old ideas are good, some old ideas we should also be able to let go. I don’t know about Indian dance, but it’s traditional in dance in the Western world, we work with mirrors, for example--

RM: We don’t work with the mirror in Indian dance. That’s the first thing that we are forbidden to do, because we are supposed to feel what we do, not see what we do.

ON: I love it, I love it. You see, in Gaga, and in any kind of dance that I do, we don’t have mirrors in our studio. So we have to feel.

Every time I go to work with other companies, in my contract, the company has to cover the mirrors. I have arguments about this all the time.

RM: In Indian dance, our masters forbid us to look at the mirror, because they say then you’re not alone in the studio, there’s somebody looking at you.

And the whole thing is then on the surface, so you don’t feel what you’re doing. And so my studio doesn’t have mirrors.

ON: That is so good to hear.

RM: When I was reading about you, I was so happy to find out about the “no mirrors”. Is there anything else you would like to share?

ON: I just would like people to dance. Every day.

RM: Yes, everybody should dance every day.

Raka Maitra’s Chowk Productions presented The Second Sunrise at da:ns festival on 14 & 15 Oct 2016, while Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company presented Decadance at da:ns festival on 21 & 22 Oct 2016.

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